It’s another Chanukah miracle: a small group of Jewish men defy the odds and emerge victorious. But this time there was no war, no bloodshed and instead of an army of Maccabees, the conquering heroes are the a cappella group Maccabeats, 14 current and former students from Yeshiva University. Their hit song “Candlelight,” a take-off on Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” has gone viral and reached over two million hits on YouTube in just 10 days.
Founded four years ago by Michael Greenberg, who is still a member of the Maccabeats, their debut album “Voices From The Heights,” released this past March, was a modest success. It took eight months for their first music video that posted online – “One Day,” a version of the Matisyahu hit song – to reach 100,000 hits on YouTube. That song was recorded in one of the singer’s closets.
But the success of “Candlelight” has been nothing short of meteoric, and mostly unprecedented for an Orthodox-themed song from an Orthodox group.
“We figured it would have a nice following in Yeshiva University, maybe in the centrist Orthodox community, but we never expected anything like this,” said Julian Horowitz, the 23-year-old musical director of the Maccabeats. “Immanuel Shalev, our associate director, came up with idea and we ran with it. After all, with a name like Maccabeats, Chanukah is definitely our holiday.”
Fellow Maccabeat, 22-year-old Ari Lewis, a Richmond, Virginia senior who is majoring in business management, concurs. “It has been such a crazy ride. We were dreaming of maybe one day getting 750,000 hits. We never expected to hear it on the radio, or see it in the New York Times.”
In fact, the Maccabeats are everywhere these days. CBS local news, NBC local news, Wall Street Journal, cnn.com, the home pages of both MTV and AOL, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, the Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, and on and on. The New York Times reports that the song has also been played by radio stations Z-100 and WPLJ.
The song itself, filmed and edited by Uri Westrich, a Mount Sinai Medical Student, with lyrics by Maccabeats’ Shalev and David Block, manages to synthesize the story of Chanukah in a way that has across the board appeal. The pop sound and visually-appealing images are safe enough to appeal to the Orthodox crowd, but the well-produced video is professional enough to impress non-religious Jews, unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews as well.
Buri Rosenberg of Monsey, another undergraduate Maccabeat, theorizes that the success of Candlelight comes from “making something that is ‘poppy’ but at the same time meaningful.”
Feedback from the public has been overwhelming, and the Maccabeats are taking turns answering the e-mails that keep pouring in.
“I get e-mails saying ‘you made me observe Chanukah for the first time in 20 years,'” said Horowitz. “We are touching people who are frum and people who aren’t frum but are moving in that direction. If you just put a little thought into making religion a little fun and a little relevant you can touch so many people in so many ways.”
“I must have answered 100 e-mails today,” said Lewis. “And by the time I was done, there must have been another 100 new ones. It has been so phenomenal and we have gotten so much positive feedback, from parents about their kids, from teachers about their students, from Orthodox Jews, unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews, so many emotional comments. We feel so special that we were able to touch so many people’s lives.”
The Maccabeats continue to share their special brand of music with the public, appearing this past week at Flatbush High School, Manhattan Day School and at Prime KO. They will also be appearing at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse at on Sunday, December 26. For more information, check out the Maccabeats on Facebook.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various Jewish newspapers, magazines and websites in addition to having written song lyrics and scripts for several full-scale productions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.